Everybody's Fine (PG-13)
Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
If you had polled a sampling of movie geeks in the mid-'90s, and asked them to name the best living male and female American actors, I'm willing to bet that Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep would have won. Today, Streep is as revered and versatile as ever, if not more so. But what about Bob?
On one hand, you've got to recognize De Niro for attempting a late-career reinvention of himself as a comedic stalwart in Analyze This, Meet the Parents and their sequels. But he's also been slumming in limp thrillers (Hide and Seek, Righteous Kill) and saving his more interesting work for cameos (the swish-buckling pirate in Stardust). We keep watching De Niro, like a great athlete past his prime, hoping we'll catch a glimpse of what once made him unstoppable — and ending up sorry that we wasted our time.
Everybody's Fine is exactly the kind of role that De Niro doesn't need right now, one so low-key and inoffensive that he doesn't seem to know how to play it. In Kirk Jones' remake of the 1990 Giuseppe Tornatore Italian-language drama, DeNiro plays Frank Goode, a recently widowed retiree looking forward to a holiday visit from his grown children. Instead, they each call him up to bail out — advertising executive Amy (Kate Beckinsale) pleading a sick kid, Las Vegas dancer Rosie (Drew Barrymore) and musician Robert (Sam Rockwell) claiming work commitments, etc. So Frank decides to surprise his far-flung progeny on a cross-country journey, only to discover that their circumstances aren't quite what he believed.
Jones (whose slim directing credits include Nanny McPhee) takes a welcome reserved approach to the family dynamics, playing on the metaphor of a guy whose work was manufacturing telephone wire being disconnected from his kids' less-than-perfect lives. He probably plays a bit too coy with some of the secrets that Frank will discover about his children, but the absence of melodrama keeps the story compelling.
Enigma can be compelling, too, but the central character remains so unknowable, he eventually becomes frustrating. Frank appears to be an endlessly sociable fellow, chatting up grocery clerks and strangers on the train. Flashbacks suggest that he held high expectations for his children, but there's not much that builds on that context. Everyone keeps things from Frank out of a fear of disappointing him — yet there's virtually nothing in the script to indicate that he's remotely judgmental or distant.
So why does the man we see bear virtually no resemblance to the father we hear described? Frank's journey is designed to lead him to awareness of how he failed as a parent, but exactly what did he do wrong?
De Niro is left to fill in the script's blanks, but he doesn't seem to know what to do with them, either. There's a scene in which Frank gives money to a homeless man, then appears annoyed at the man's lack of gratitude. That could have been the entry point into an exploration of Frank's strict sense of right and wrong, but De Niro doesn't play it with any edge. And every scene with his children suggests the same basic decency, and a sadness that he didn't see through their façades.
It's not as though De Niro has become a bad actor, and maybe his recent choices reflect the options available to actors of a certain age. But his genial manner and occasional sad-clown smiles aren't enough to give Everybody's Fine the emotional punch it requires. That's something America's greatest living actor — whoever that may be now — might have pulled off.